Interview with Larnell Stovall

Now if you’re a fan of any one of these movies; “Undisputed 3: Redemption“, “Mortal Kombat: Legacy“, “Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown“, “Falcon Rising”, “The Raid 2” (and seriously how could you not be?) a good portion of your praise should be sent in the direction of Mr. Larnell Stovall, who held the title of fight choreographer on each one.

A native of New Orleans with countless championships in both forms and fighting to his credit, Larnell has made his mark on the world of stunt work and steadily built a reputation as one of the best fight choreographers in the business.

Larnell’s journey begins back in the late 1990’s when Wesley Snipes’ astonishing physical performance in “Blade” first inspired him to take his talents to the world of action filmmaking. In the years since, he’s done everything from stunt work and stunt coordination for blockbusters like “Ride Along”, “The Hunger Games”, and “Straight Outta Compton” to crafting Scott Adkins’ battles against Lateef Crowder and Marko Zaror in “Undisputed 3” into among the most the jaw-dropping martial arts duels to hit the screen in recent times!

Today, Larnell sits down with us to share his journey as a student and competitor in martial arts and his work in the realm of fight choreography and also reveals his philosophical perspectives on how he’s achieved such resounding success so far…

Hi there Larnell, thank you so much for your time today! How are you doing?

Hi Raj, thanks for having me, I’m doing great!

Fantastic. Have you taken a look at our site?

Yes, I have, I keep pretty close tabs on anyone online with a site or a blog that focuses on the action industry. It’s good stuff and you can’t forget the name – if you’re a martial arts fanatic, how much better can it get than “Kung Fu Kingdom”?

Awesome thanks for your support. Well, let’s kick off (no pun intended) with some basics, like when and where you were born?

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana (USA) on October 22, 1976.

Your height and weight?

I’m 5’7 (1.70m) tall and weigh 214 lbs (97kg).

So, can you tell us a bit about how you first started out in martial arts?

I started when I was about 13 years old. I was a class clown back then, I had a lot of energy, and there was another kid in school who didn’t talk much, but I found out he was involved in Shotokan Karate. So one day I took the bus to his school, the Blue Lion Karate Academy which was headed by Grandmaster Eric O’Neal a few days later and from there I was hooked.

He promoted me to 5th dan about seven or eight years ago. Later on, I also dabbled in Jujitsu, Capoeira, and Aikido. What makes the story of the kid from school funny is that I went on to win a lot of competitions for that school, but about a week after I first started, he earned his black belt, and he never came back!

(Both laugh)

Interesting story and that’s some pretty serious training on your part to get to 5th dan.

Yeah it’s training but also its time, because with time comes a maturity and insight into martial arts that you can’t receive just by being given a lot of drills.

Absolutely. So, tell us a little about your competitive background in sparring, weapons, forms, etc. When did you first start competing?

My first championship came in 1992, I won a travelling tournament called the Kung Fu Nationals when it came down to New Orleans. It was open to all styles, and I won in fighting and kata in my division. A little later, I won the USKA in 1994, and I won again the following year. I won two years in forms and one in fighting.

Those are some great accomplishments. So, who would you credit as having most influenced or inspired you in martial arts? 

Well, I hate to sound stereotypical, but I’ve got to say Bruce Lee! His style, his intensity, his journey; he was just phenomenal and anytime something was in his way he always found some way to turn it to his advantage. I love what Brandon Lee was trying to bring to the table, too, and to this day, I still wonder how big of an impact he’d have made if it weren’t for his unfortunate accident.

I also really loved Jim Kelly, Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, and Jean-Claude Van Damme -he made kicking and having the splits huge. I’d have to put Wesley Snipes up there as well. Seeing “Blade” was one of the things that made me want to do movies in the first place. I saw it with a bunch of other students from my dojo, and I just thought I’d never seen a brother on screen in the 90’s kicking ass like that with such charisma and swagger.

Chuck Jeffreys is also probably the reason I’m in the industry too! When I saw his name in the credits for “Blade”, I looked him up and remembered that he was in “Bloodmoon”. So I got a hold of him, we talked back and forth a bit, and I sent him a VHS tape with me competing, and Chuck told me I had talent and that I should come out to L.A. if this was what I wanted to do. It was still a few years before he and I met face to face, but those initial interactions online between us really helped get me started.

That’s awesome, we admire Chuck’s work and we’d like to feature him someday (hint hint, if you’re reading this Chuck 🙂 So, what are your thoughts on some other big names in the business – i.e. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Mark Dacascos?

Oh yeah you can’t forget all the guys from Asia – Jackie, Jet, Donnie, Sammo, Yuen Biao, I love all of those guys! Interesting thing about Mark is that he was actually my main introduction to Capoeira. I saw “Only the Strong” in the theatre when it was first released. It’s still really amazing to think that all these guys that I used to watch and follow in high school, like Mark, Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, and Michael Jai White are guys I work with now. I haven’t choreographed Wesley yet, but I have met him.

Yes, it’s the same for all of us here first watching them years back and now talking to them! Well, looking at fight choreography, we’ve seen all the amazing moves Tony Jaa did in “Ong Bak”, and Donnie Yen popularize Wing Chun and MMA. So, where do you think it’s evolving to in terms of the next big trend in martial arts’ films? 

For me, looking at the industry right now, I want to say styles are going to make a comeback. A lot of movies have tried to reach the widest possible audience by making a lot of fight scenes try to be very general, but the problem there is that they start looking the same. In Asia, they have such respect for the individual styles that they really strive to represent them individually, such as with all of Jackie’s movies – he was parkour before parkour even had a name!

Totally! OK, looking back at your career in the industry, can you talk a little more about how you first got started?

It was early 2001. I visited a friend in L.A. who was on the tournament circuit as well, and we hung around with some stunt guys. At the time, there were a lot of shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “VIP” and “Martial Law” that needed martial artists and I got to see a lot of the stunt guys who were a part of those and the process of it.  That was when I said, “This is what I want to do.” I really learned a lot at that time about what can be expected of you as a stunt guy and the kind of training you need to do to stay on top of your game so that you can do anything they ask of you right when they want you to.

Well, it has clearly paid off, you’ve worked as a stuntman, stunt coordinator and fight choreographer throughout your career. Which of those would you say is the most challenging?

I think being a stunt coordinator/fight choreographer, because you’re balancing everything -makeup, wardrobe, effects, etc. Sometimes, you’re getting pulled in a few different directions with being in meetings and other things and that’s why many times, people bring in an assistant fight choreographer. Balancing all of those is the most challenging, but I’ve also found it’s the most rewarding because by the end of it, you’ve really had a chance to execute your vision.

Exactly. So, who would you say are the best directors to work with from the view of your role as stunt coordinator/fight choreographer?

Isaac Florentine is definitely up there, big time! John Hyams is another great one, and Gareth Evans, as well. I’ve just learned more and more each day I’ve worked with him on “The Raid 2” and our latest project.

Definitely among the best in the business. You also work with the renowned stunt team, 87Eleven Action Design, how did you become a part of it (and what’s the story behind the name anyway)?

Well, I’ve been a part of it for about seven years. I knew several of them before I was a member, we used to meet up on Saturdays and train together. My friend J.J. Perry invited me down to the place, and that’s where I first met David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, and about three years later, they invited me to join the team, and it’s not an easy team to get on! As far the name, it’s the address, 8711 Aviation Boulevard, simple as that!

(Both laugh)

So, what would you say are some of your memorable highlights in action directing and stunt work so far?

Well, I’ve been fortunate that for example, there haven’t been too many serious injuries on most of the films I’ve worked on, but there have been a few. One was during the fight in the sporting goods store in “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”, when they crash through the window. The timing was off where the glass should’ve broken and one of the stunt guys ended up getting the back of his head cut by a shard of glass, so he had to go and get stitches.

There have also been movies where we were told we’d have three days to do a fight scene and when we’d get there, it’d actually turn out to be less than one! So we really have to work fast. In those situations, you really have to adapt, so I tell the actors, “Okay, we’re taking section 3 out, taking section 7 out, and combining sections 2 and 4”, and then we have to rehearse it in about ten minutes.

Rigorous demands!Your talents also take you to Bollywood, India, where for example you did a movie called “Boologam”, can you tell us more?

Yes, I did that last summer. Nathan Jones was the main bad guy, so that was my first time working with him. It’s a boxing movie, and the people behind it loved “Undisputed 3”, so they asked me to come to Chennai to do the fight scenes. That region is actually classified as ‘Tollywood’ (from Telugu which is the main language of the South Indian region).

How interesting. Speaking of “Undisputed 3”, what was it like working with Scott Adkins on the film?

Scott’s great. I also worked with him on “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” and “Metal Hurlant Chronicles”, and he always wants to push the choreography to the next level. When we did “Undisputed 3”, sometimes we’d have 14-hour days, but he and Lateef, Marko, and the other guys would still be ready to meet at the gym that night to rehearse for an hour or two, even if that particular fight wasn’t the next day, but just to stay on point. Anytime I work with Scott, I look forward to it.

That kind of commitment is indeed requisite. What other funny or interesting stories can you share with us from the making of “Undisputed 3”?

Well, whenever people ask about the end fight between Scott and Marko, they always think it took us a week to film it, but it was actually filmed in two and a half days. Those guys were pushed hard and we all wanted the fight to be long, have levels and be able to tell a story, so we were really happy that we were able to get everything in and we didn’t have to cut any of the fight.

Also, we do all of the fight scenes in sections, I think the one between Scott and Lateef had about ten and we were about halfway through with it and at lunch that day, I just realized that a few sections didn’t make sense to me, so we changed their chronology around and the fight came out better. It just flowed better and built up to its climax the way we wanted it to.

Can’t argue with that, it’s an amazing fight and one that’s difficult to beat! Looking ahead now, how did you become involved with “Mortal Kombat: Rebirth” and the web-series that followed it, “Mortal Kombat: Legacy”?

J.J. Perry was originally going to be the fight choreographer, but he ended up having a scheduling conflict, so he recommended me to director Kevin Tancharoen. He really blew me away when he showed me his concept for Mortal Kombat and I was really excited to leave a mark on it since I grew up playing the games.

Very cool! You also worked as the fight choreographer for several of Michael Jai White’s movies, such as “Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown” and “Falcon Rising”. What can you tell us about making those films with Mike?

Well, I’ve known Mike for a long time; he was actually one of the first martial arts’ actors I met when I first visited L.A. Later, our paths started crossing a lot more when I was really coming into my own as fight choreographer and stunt coordinator.

Probably the funniest story from “Falcon Rising” is when it got to the scene where his character, John Chapman, is in the trunk of the car. We joke around and have fun on sets all the time and as we were getting ready to do that scene, Mike just kept saying to everyone, “Nobody let Larnell get anywhere near this trunk!” cause he knew I was going to lock it once he got in. After the second take, he even came out and said, “Someone take the lock off of this damn trunk before Larnell sneaks up and locks it!” He knew I was waiting for it…

(Both laugh)

That’s hilarious! You also served as a stunt co-ordinator for the short film, “Superhero Fight Club” which was a season finale promo for “Arrow and The Flash” in spring 2015. How did that come about? 

James Bamford called me up and asked me to be a part of it, since the shoot was being done in Los Angeles, but the prep for it was happening while he was still doing “Arrow”. He caught up during the shoot itself and sent over fight references.

Well, it’s most certainly a high octane promo for two awesome shows! Speaking of stunt co-ordination, you also filled that role recently for Sylvester Stallone’s “Creed”. How did you become involved with that and what can you tell us about your experience on it?

My buddy Clay Barber asked me to step in for him on his behalf since he was out of the country during the “Creed” pick-ups. It was amazing to be a part of it. Phylicia Rashad was like a mom to me when I was a kid watching “The Cosby Show”, so it was amazing to work alongside an actress of her caliber. Also working with the director, Ryan Coogler, was a great experience. He is a great director; knows his shots, how to tell a story and communicate with his actors to get the best out of them.

Definitely! Let’s talk about one of highly anticipated films you worked on, “Kickboxer: Vengeance”, which features Alain Moussi, Georges St. Pierre, Gina Carano, Dave Bautista, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the late Darren Shahlavi. What can you tell us about the experience of making that film?

Gina’s such a sweetheart; I’d work with her again anytime! Alain’s a great performer, I’m truly happy for him and I hope it leads to bigger and better things for him. Dave Bautista was amazing, too, especially with the time that he had and the fact that he didn’t get to do any rehearsals. GSP is really cool, a really funny guy! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to work with Van Damme on the film – all of his scenes were in Thailand, and everything I did was in New Orleans, but I’ve worked with him on “Universal Soldier”, and he’s really cool.

It was really unfortunate that Darren passed away, and I’m glad that I got to work with him on as many things as I did. I worked with him on the test shoot for “ZamboDende”, and the next month, we were doing “Kickboxer” in New Orleans. He always pushed it in a good way with his training and the kinds of projects he was pursuing, I really admired him for that.

Really broke our hearts when we heard the sudden news of his passing, RIP Darren…he was so dedicated…That said, from the perspective of physical talent and ability, who are some of the actors or martial artists that you’ve particularly enjoyed working with?

I definitely want to say Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White, for sure! Hopefully we can get those two in some kind of buddy action movie, I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet. (Laughs) IkoUwais is also really great, I think he’s just getting started with where he’s going to go and Mark Dacascos is awesome, too, and he’s still in amazing shape.

He absolutely is! On that note, we’ve got to do this; what are LarnellStovalls’s top ten (or more) favourite kung fu movies?

That’s a tough one! I love “Righting Wrongs”, “Wheels on Meals“, and “Police Story“. Obviously “Enter the Dragon” – you really could just list all of Bruce’s for me – and I thought “Gorgeous” was great – Jackie and Brad Allan had some great fights in that one. Some others I really love are “Five Deadly Venoms”, “One-Armed Swordsman”, “No Retreat, No Surrender“, “Martial Law”, and “The Perfect Weapon” – gotta give Jeff Speakman his props! I also really definitely have to include “Once Upon A Time in China” movies with Jet Li and the “Drunken Master” movies, and some of Donnie’s older movies like “Iron Monkey“, the “Tiger Cage” movies, and of course, he just blew the roof off with the likes of “SPL”, “Flash Point“, and “Ip Man“.

Some phenomenal titles there! Looking now at your training, is it mostly martial arts and flexibility that you do or do you add weights to that? What sort of training methodology really works for you? 

When I used to compete, being a shorter guy and also kind of built like a football player, it was a lot of plyometrics, like squat jumps and things like that. I liked being really deceptive, being the shorter guy who can kick a six foot five guy in the head, so it really helped me with jumping and being explosive, and I’d mix it in with weight lifting and sculpting.

In the gym, if you just try to hit a number of reps, then you don’t know how far your body could’ve  pushed, so I’d really tell people to just go until it burns. There was also one job that came up about twelve years ago where I really changed my diet up a lot, because it called for a leaner build and I was in more of a bodybuilder shape at the time, and I ended up dropping eighteen pounds (8kg) in about three weeks. I ultimately didn’t get the part, but that was a real learning experience in what I could do in this business if I put my mind to it.

These days for me it’s a mix of a lot of things.The guys at 87Eleven are just beasts, they have a lot of different training regimes that are geared towards whatever project they’re doing at the time, whether it’s CrossFit, cardio or kickboxing. For what I do, it can be a lot more thinking than doing, but I also need to be able to keep up with kicking and punching because I may have to demonstrate techniques for fight scenes, so that’s kind of my martial arts workouts these days.

Relevant and adaptable that makes sense. Are there any pieces of gym equipment that you really like using?

I don’t really have a favourite, it all depends on what I’m trying to do that day. I became a big fan of the rowing machine at 87Eleven because of how much it pushes the cardio.

Wise! (It works 84% of the body’s muscles without stressing or hurting the joints.) OK, so moving on, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?

Well, this is more of a story of how stunts can go wrong; there was a Disney movie called “Dog Gone”. I was on a boat up on a hill (and by that, I mean a mountain!) with some other guys.

I was doubling Kelly Perine, and in that scene the boat gets released by accident and starts rolling down the hill into a street and then into the city and finally crashes. It ended up being that we either had too much speed or the angle was a little wrong and I and one of the other stunt guys ended up flying out of the boat when it crashed, which was not part of the stunt, but fortunately, we didn’t get hurt. When you’re flying through the air like that when you’re not supposed to and you have no idea how or where you’re going to land, those few seconds seem like forever!

Wo! that’s danger-fu right there. OK, so what are some of the other stunt mishaps you’ve seen and what’s the most serious injury you’ve sustained?

Well, I’ve been fortunate that there haven’t been too many serious injuries on most of the films I’ve worked on, but there have been a few. One was during the fight in the sporting goods store in “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”, when they crash through the window. The timing was off where the glass should’ve broken and one of the stunt guys ended up getting the back of his head cut by a shard of glass, so he had to go and get stitches.

There have also been movies where we were told we’d have three days to do a fight scene and when we’d get there, it’d actually turn out to be less than one! So we really have to work fast. In those situations, you really have to adapt, so I tell the actors, “Okay, we’re taking section 3 out, taking section 7 out, and combining sections 2 and 4”, and then we have to rehearse it in about ten minutes.

Rigorous demands!

As for myself, I’ve been lucky; I’ve had more injuries from training than I have from movies. I used to really be into tricking, and I’ve hurt my knees a few times doing that.

That’s not hard to imagine.  What do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity?

I’m really simple; I just like to spend time with my family or pop in some video games or martial arts movies. Even then, I’m watching the action in the video games and thinking about how I can choreograph that in real life. I like using downtime to still learn and grow.

That’s brilliant. Speaking of video games, what would say are some of your favourites?

“Call of Duty” is really great, and of course, I’m a “Mortal Kombat” guy, a “Street Fighter” guy, and I love the “Batman: Arkham Asylum” games.

Favourite music?

I like hip-hop, more 90’s and early 2000’s hip-hop, guys like Far Side, Brand Nubian, Nas, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, and NWA.

Favourite books?

These days, my reading actually comes more from scripts, even for movies I’m not involved with. I really like playing the action to scripts out in my head! (Laughs)

Favourite movies (non-martial arts)?

I really love a lot of horror movies, like “Sleepaway Camp”, “Puppet Master”, “Critters”, and everything with Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Chucky, and Michael Myers. I also really liked “Cabin in the Woods”, the “Saw” series and “Evil Dead”, and I thought the remake was pretty good, too. I also really liked what they did with the “Paranormal Activity” series and “VHS”. Even “The Human Centipede” series, as crazy and sick as those are – my wife and I actually drove almost two hours to see the second one in a theatre!

(Both laugh)

Now that’s some commitment! Well, that’s a perfect segue into the next question, what’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?

(Laughs) Well, when I was a kid, I was into toys a lot, and one of my favourites was He-Man. I was collecting those before I even got into martial arts and I think that’s probably where choreography started for me, because I’d always have all the characters posed for battle, and I’d change it up every day. I also had a lot of Transformers, Ninja Turtles, and Star Wars toys too. I think it really ties into fight choreography and would be my geeky thing because I would really love to be part of the new “He-Man” movie, whether as stunt coordinator or fight choreographer.

The superhero-martial arts and ‘larger than life’ connection, gotta love it and you being on He-Man…a dream come true! On that note, if you could be a superhero and possess a particular superpower, who would it be?

I’d have to go with Black Panther. To me, it doesn’t get any better than to be the son of a king and have that mantle pass onto you -for your kingdom to be completely self-reliant and be one of the most intelligent people and most skilled fighters in the world. I really can’t wait to see what Marvel does with him!

How interesting and philosophical. Indeed Black Panther made a brilliant showing in “Captain America: Civil War” pretty much stealing the show action-wise. Going off of that, what are some likes/dislikes you have about life in general?

I love seeing people pursuing their dreams and achieving them and really dislike seeing people trying to stop others from achieving their dreams.

Agree with gusto, kudos Larnell!  Well, since we’re about to (sadly) sign off, are there any warrior words of wisdom you’d like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers?

I really love Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 6 Keys to Success:

1) Trust yourself
2) Break the rules
3) Don’t be afraid to fail
4) Don’t listen to the naysayers
5) Work your ass off
6) Give back

I really like that he ends with the idea of; now that you’ve made it, what can you do to give back?

I’d never really thought of a lot of the philosophical things I post on Facebook or things like that (as giving back) but every now and then, someone will say to me, “Thanks, I needed that, it helped me get through this”. Other than my wife, I didn’t really have anyone to give me words of encouragement when I didn’t get an audition or a job went a different way, so I’m really thankful that sharing stories of my experience can be helpful and encouraging to people trying to forge their own path.

That’s a solid way to end. Thank you so much for taking time out for us today Larnell. Our readers and all of us here at Kung Fu Kingdom greatly look forward to keeping in touch on all the exciting projects you have coming up now and in the months ahead.

You’re welcome! and thanks for the opportunity to be featured on KFK.

To find out more about Larnell Stovall and keep updated with all the cool things he’s got going on, checkout his Facebook and Twitter pages!

Raj, a wing chun student, enjoys spending time studying various aspects of the martial arts, from theory to practically applied skills. He enjoys interviewing prominent and dedicated martial artists from all over the world, who have something inspiring and stimulating to share. He also manages projects in terms of filming, reviews of movies/books and other quality features.

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